Did my father really love me? Or was he as distant as the face my sister and I could see in the clouds?
Moonlight and Mosquitoes97944_000_014
A cooling breeze was starting up, and I could feel it lapping at the edges of something smoldering inside me.
“What’s the matter, Missy?” Leatrice asked. “You seem mad at somebody.”
We were kneeling on the damp lake bank beside the dock watching black fish, small shiny ones, darting among the green seaweed. Our knees were wet and cool, and the sun was shining warm on our backs.
Lee was dropping pebbles, trying to bomb the fish. “I wish we could stay here all summer,” she said. “Don’t you?” I didn’t answer, and she kept plopping little rocks into the water. Soon she stood up and came over to where I was.
I still didn’t answer, and Lee went over to the lawn by the cabin. She was good about minding her own business. She knew my problem wasn’t with her.
A little breeze was coming from the west. I walked into it, out to the end of the dock, and stood. The water was deep there. If I fell in, what would happen? A dumb question. Of course I’d just dog-paddle to shore. But what if I didn’t know how to swim? What then?
Behind me there was a new noise. I turned and Lee was coming, rowing the old tin boat. She pulled to the dock, and I stepped in over the side, staying low. She turned us with the oars and started rowing across the lake, north toward the Canada shore. She fastened her life jacket. It was a faded orange. I picked up the other one, a little wet from the boat’s bottom.
She rowed a long time without saying anything. We were facing backward, so the sun was in our faces.
“Did you tell Mom and Dad where we were going?” I asked.
“What were they doing?”
“Mom is asleep with the baby. Dad is still reading those Columbus books for his talk.”
“Of course he is. He’s always reading, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, like you.”
It was true. Dad and I were a lot alike. In some things anyway. But I didn’t want to say that. Instead I said, “He probably is reading, unless he’s too busy yelling at somebody.”
Leatrice looked at me. “What do you mean, Missy? Dad doesn’t do that.”
“He sure used to. And John told me he remembers when Dad would really throw his weight around. Back when John was little. I sort of remember it too.”
“That doesn’t sound like the dad I know,” Lee said. She looked right at me, like she was trying to see inside. “I asked Dad to come out here with us, but he told me, ‘Not now.’”
“I could’ve saved you the trouble.”
We were getting out quite far. There were small waves now. Faint voices came from somewhere on the west shore. We carefully switched places, and I took the oars. I rowed hard until I began to sweat, even in the breeze. I was overdoing it and getting tired and less steady. Suddenly, I missed the water with the right oar. The left one caught and unbalanced me. I fell off the seat into the bottom of the boat. The fall hurt my elbow and scared me a little, but then I started laughing.
I was near Lee’s feet. She pulled the oars in, and then sat in the bottom of the boat with me. We stretched our legs up over the bow seat. The boat rocked gently in the water, like a cradle.
“What do they remind you of?” Lee pointed up at clouds high overhead, fluffy masses drifting east, each looking different from the others.
“That one looks like an old man with a beard. Do you see him?”
“No,” she said.
“Well, it does. He looks faraway, thinking his own thoughts.”
“Who is it?”
“Maybe Heavenly Father. That’s how he is. Faraway.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s like that.”
“Well, I do. It’s like nothing is any use. I can’t manage to feel any other way.” I shifted positions, and it made the boat rock a little.
We lay for a long time, drifting, not talking. Finally Leatrice rowed home. As we were beaching the boat, it came to me that I should tell her something else that had been bothering me. “You know, Lee, in my Young Women class, Sister Norland asked me a question. We were pretending to be New Testament people. She said it would help us learn prayer language. She said, ‘Missy, doth thy father love thee?’ I was going to say ‘Yes, Sister Norland,’ but what came out was ‘Maybe, sometimes.’”
Lee took my hands in hers. Her eyes were a little wet. “Missy, it bothers me what you said before about Dad. Even if that was all true once, I don’t think you need to feel hard toward him. He was young, too. It’s got to be hard at first to learn to be a dad. You and I will probably need some forgiveness too for the mistakes we’ll make while we’re learning to be moms.”
Coming from her, it sounded right, like the truth.
That night we went to bed early, the little kids first, then Mom and Dad. Today had been the first day of vacation without rain. Leatrice said her prayers. I decided I better try. I didn’t kneel, but I tried to pray on the bed. “Help me get over this alone feeling … ,” but I didn’t feel any different after.
I lay and watched the trees’ shadows on the screen and the wall and thought about the world and the moon, floating in space alone, making their slow endless circuits, maybe running forever on automatic. Some of the Founding Fathers, I’d read, called it Deism—that God had set it all going and gone away. About there I faded off to sleep.
When I woke up, I couldn’t tell how much time had passed. The shadows and the moonlight were still there outside. Our bedroom door was ajar, and a faint shifting light was coming into the room. A mosquito was whining near my ear. I didn’t know if it was that or the feeble light that had disturbed me. I got up and looked into the living room where the little kids were asleep on the couches and on blankets on the floor.
Dad was kneeling by the cone fireplace in the center of the room. He was reaching inside it, doing something. I went over to him. “What’s wrong?”
“Hold the flashlight for me, Missy, will you? Mosquitoes are coming down the stovepipe.”
“So that’s how they’re sneaking in! We checked all the screens. Boy, aren’t they tricky?”
“It’s the first night with no fire. That must be why they’re bothering us now but not before.”
I wadded up papers and handed them to Dad. He pushed the last one into place and stood up. “That should keep the little devils out. I found them on the baby’s face.”
“Were they biting you, Dad?”
“No, I heard somebody crying out in their sleep. That’s how I knew. I heard it from the other room.”
That hit me. Sometimes I’d thought he didn’t hear much of anything from us.
“Pretty smart, Dad, your figuring out how they were getting in.”
“Thanks, Missy.” He put his arm around me and squeezed. It startled me. It had been a long time since he’d done that. It did feel good though.
“Good night. Remember to say your prayers.”
I went back into the bedroom and stood by the window. The moon was up there, floating and still. And there were night sounds, an insect orchestra pulsating. I could hear it through the closed window. I hadn’t heard it while I was asleep, and I hadn’t wakened when the little children cried out. Dad had. Why had he heard, and I hadn’t? Somehow that struck me as a necessary question. I stood and thought about it, but why it could be important wasn’t clear in my sleepiness.
I thought about my father and other fathers, and as I stood at the window the words came, those that my teacher Miss Carroll had us memorize:
In class Hamlet’s words had bothered me. Now I said them over several times. It seemed presuming and even arrogant to claim to be that faithful. Such lovely words, but could they be true for any man?
I went over and got back into bed. From there I could still see the moon, just right to show through my window. Oddly, it no longer seemed so distant and impersonal, but warmer and nearer. The moon sailed, and I drifted off to sleep.
Some indefinite time later, I again found myself awake. I was still hanging to a dream. There had been a powerful song in it, already undefined and indistinct, but the force of the music remained with me. And suddenly I had a comforting, understanding feeling. It was surprisingly strong, and it came to me like a revelation—that really there is a being who is as reliable, as fully reliable, in His love as Hamlet had claimed to be.
I lay still awhile and savored that amazing thought. Perhaps half an hour went by. The moon was past my window. I slipped from under the covers and knelt by the bed. I prayed, still cherishing the warmth of the new feeling. And with it I recognized another extraordinary impression, that I was being heard. The perception was almost tangible.
Leatrice said something in her sleep before I got into the bed, but she didn’t wake up. I thought I’d lay there in the moonlight and listen to the outside sounds and watch the shadows. And think about fathers.
But I didn’t. I went right to sleep.